Build Me an Ark

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Poet, essayist, and novelist, Brenda Peterson employs all three genres in this intriguing, heartfelt account of the development of her emotional attachment to and spiritual kinship with animals and the growing sense of responsibility this connection has entailed. From her infancy on a remote Sierra National Forest lookout station, this bond with animals is pivotal throughout her life. Peterson relates her experiences with animals ranging from the everyday to the exotic—from pet dogs and cats to horses and wild grizzlies, wolves, dolphins, orcas, beluga whales, rattlesnakes, and more.

As a Forest Service ranger’s child, it is fitting that Brenda Peterson’s iconic figure should have been Smokey the Bear. Her hero worship of the famous Forest Service symbol results in a moving epiphany for her when she visits the real bear in the zoo and confronts the reality of his sad, bedraggled, unnatural existence pacing back and forth in a tiny enclosure in Washington, DC. Having witnessed the full and free lives of bears in the wild, she realizes what Smokey has lost. Having seen the wilderness shrink as the nation’s forests are clearcut under the auspices of the Forest Service her father works for and eventually leads, she also realizes what both animals and people have lost and continue to lose.

Peterson’s spiritual exploration has an additional philosophical dimension reflected in the title: Build Me an Ark. Raised in the beliefs of her Southern Baptist mother, she is imprinted in early childhood by the story of Noah’s ark with the animals going on board two by two to survive the flood in company with Noah and his wife. Her memoir movingly illustrates how she has made it her life’s work to help ensure that the ark and all aboard escape drowning by buoying each other up like the whales and dolphins she loves.